What is Hepatitis?

The liver is one of the largest solid organs in the body and is located just below the right side of the chest. It serves a variety of functions: such as producing clotting factors in the blood, synthesizing protein, and storing glucose. Its most important role in the body, however, is filtering all the blood and detoxifying it from harmful substances. Which is why inflammation of the liver – called hepatitis in medical terms – is a serious condition.

Perhaps the more usually encountered form of this disease is viral in nature. There are five distinct viruses that are known to cause this condition. It may be acquired via different routes: you can acquire this disease from ingesting food that is contaminated with the virus, one can also acquire it from being transfused with contaminated blood products, or it can also be transmitted through sexual intercourse.

Another common etiology of liver disease is through chronic heavy alcohol intake. The normal range of alcohol intake is around 80 grams a day in men, and 40 grams per day in women. Any excess from these values for prolonged periods significantly damages the liver cells and causes inflammation of the liver tissues. To make matters worse, this is not fully reversible, and can potentially cause liver failure.

hepatitisIn other cases, however, the medications become the poisons themselves. There is a so-called drug-induced hepatitis – that is, inflammation of the liver due to intake of medicines that are harmful when taken in very large doses. The most common medication implicated is paracetamol, or acetaminophen. When patients take paracetamol for prolonged periods (e.g. people who have very frequent headaches take these liberally), it can cause direct liver cell damage as well as disrupting its normal physiologic processes. 

Liver inflammation can also be associated with non-alcholic fatty liver disease. These patients usually have little or no intake of alcohol. However, when you interview them, they usually have other comorbidities, such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and high blood cholesterol levels. When liver samples are taken and examined under a microscope, these usually show inflammation of the liver cells and numerous fat globules in the tissues.

What are the signs and symptoms of Hepatitis?

The most familiar presentation of Hepatitis is a yellowish discoloration of the skin and eyes, called jaundice. This is a result of bile pigments being accumulated in the blood. Other common symptoms are loss of appetite, vomiting, body weakness, abdominal enlargement, and edema (e.g. swelling of the hands and feet).

How do the physicians know if a patient has this disease? They usually take blood samples and measure the liver enzymes. These enzymes are usually increased as a result of the significant cell damage and inflammation. They can also order imaging studies, like ultrasonography, or a CT scan, showing enlargement or scarring of the liver. They may also take liver biopsies to objectively examine the cells.

Some cases are spontaneously resolving, but most are chronic in nature, and thus treatment is mainly for symptom control. Liver transplant can be a viable option for some patients, but most patients are too unstable to undergo surgery. The only known way to prevent this disease is through vaccination, though this is only applicable for viral hepatitis. A healthy diet, and drinking and moderation may possibly prevent the occurrence of this disease as well.